Spirituality, Science, Philosophy and The Origins of Consciousness

¹”Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain comes joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency and lamentations.” From the F. Adams translation of The Genuine Works of Hippocrates.

Francis Crick, Nobel prize laureate in physiology and medicine, in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, borrows an idea from Hippocrates¹ and uses it to argue that “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (Crick, 1995, p. 3).

Philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, Alva Noë, in response to Crick’s statement, argues that the most striking thing about Crick’s hypothesis is that is not astonishing at all:

. . . [W]hat needs to be kept clearly in focus is that the neuroscientists, in updating the traditional conception of ourselves [we are our brains], have really only   succeeded in replacing one mystery with another.  At present, we have no better understanding of how ‘a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’ might give rise to consciousness than we understand how supernatural soul stuff might do the trick.  Which is just to say that the you-are-your-brain idea is not so much a working hypothesis as it is the placeholder for one (p. 6).

Is consciousness just a mass of cells that forms a placeholder in time and space for humanity or is consciousness the manifestation of a process of events and relationships, which includes an understanding of waking human life as something to be considered beyond what, can be measured in a lived experience that suggests the existence of the soul as a mystery yet to be understood?

In response to a very difficult question that cuts across every period of history an observation can be made that religion is man’s search for God, philosopher’s debate over a search for reality, and psychology is man’s search for self understanding. The etymology of the term soul from the Greek word, psuche –psuche is the word that defined as, “breath … the breath of life … that in which there is life … a living being, a living soul … the soul the soul as an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death (distinguished from other parts of the body)” (Thayer).

In Christian tradition, this has been the basis for understanding the essence of life from a non-scientific, metaphysical view.  In this approach of philosophy the process of rational inductive reasoning is applied to explaining a view of the soul. Plato…identified the soul with the person who reasons, decides, and acts … person or soul is not the familiar creature of flesh and blood but rather the incorporeal occupant and director of, even the prisoner in, that corporeal being  (soul, 2002).  Historically, emphasis is put upon the material and immaterial and are assumptions which bear upon Cartesian Dualism. It is interesting that there is a relationship between beliefs within Christian thought, philosophical assumptions, and the scientific approach of psychological theory.  Contemporary thought, questions, and dilemmas have produced the quest for understanding within developing psychological research that presents an attempt to synthesize views of the past into a current understanding.  This is most evident in the writings of Freud, Jung, Maslow—Rogers, to the current time who in an attempt to provide substantive answers about what consciousness is and how it influences a greater understanding of human life, behavior, feelings, and thought processes.

A beginning point is at a contemporary definition of consciousness which, “includes both the feeling of awareness, some of which may be under the focus of attention”, as cited in (Sternberg, 2009, p. 125).  A definition, such as this, provides an understanding of what a person may be aware of, but also necessitates that consciousness is distinct from attention in that, “information proceeds without conscious awareness” (p. 125).  However, understanding what a person may be aware of and what he/she is not consciously links two processes together to form an important connection to personality, behavior, and focuses attention upon the unconscious’ influence upon what happens in the brain-mind-body transaction.  A conclusion that can is evident here is that researchers will fall short in understanding by drawing premature conclusions concerning consciousness and unconsciousness without first embarking upon a thorough understanding of  information available from multi-disciplinary approaches to understanding Cognitive Behavioral Psychology.

With that in mind here, a reasonable conclusion to begin with is that what we know is simply not enough to declare an end to research and understanding.  What is apparent is that more information is needed to explain unconscious processes in the relationship to life as whole.  An important point is that these processes are, “harder to study simply because you are not conscious of them” (p. 124).  However, a salient point which can be noted is that significant advances have been made in understanding through continuing research, such as the, “development of … the positron emission tomography (PET) scan—for mapping the brain [and] neuropsychology … [which] has been an outgrowth of this contemporary focus on biological explanations of human thought and behavior” (psychology, 2008).  While it may seem to some that the debate has been settled by science, philosophy, or theology; an apparent fact is that the debate about consciousness has not ended, and may never.

What is interesting in this discussion is that the matter of the soul-consciousness relationship becomes a matter of interest when connected to certain themes in life: in matters of significance, meaning, purpose, and as death.  What can be observed in responses to research as a closed-system is that faulty assumptions arise out of the point of view of the researcher.  This is noted by Gary Collins (1998) who says, “When Freud wrote about religion, he predicted that interest in spiritual things would fade as people as people embraced science” (Collins, 1998).  Apparently, Freud was mistaken about religion and spiritual interest in matters of the soul and consciousness.  A truth that stands out here is that if there is one definitive proof that the question is not settled, it is the experience of humanity in the desperate search for answers.  A point of clarification that resonates in the information available is that there is a pressing need to understand what theorists, philosophers, scientists, and theologians have said and identify areas that need fuller research.  An apparent point that is clear is that what has already been said is not adequate to mediate the questions of science, while at the same time be able to bridge the gap between birth, death, and the uncertainty of what we know about waking life and the consciousness of human life.

If this is a subject that interests you leave a response and let me know what you think and if you would like to hear more about this subject.


Collins, G. R. (1998). The soul search: a spiritual journey to authentic intimacy with God. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Thomas Nelson.

Crick, F. (1995). The astonishing hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul. New York, New York, USA: Simon and Schuster.

psychology. (2008). In The Columbia Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from Capella Library: psychology. (2008). In Th Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com.library.capella.edu/entry/columency/psychology

soul. (2002). In A Dictionary of Philosophy, Macmillan. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from Capella Library: Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com.library.capella.edu/entry/macdphil/soul

Sternberg, R. J. (2009). Cognitive Psychology (5th Edition ed.). Belmont, California, USA: Wadsworth, Cenage Learning.

Thayer, S. a. (n.d.). Greek Lexicon entry for Psuche. Retrieved Aug 1, 2010, from The New Testament Greek Lexicon: http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number=5590

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6 thoughts on “Spirituality, Science, Philosophy and The Origins of Consciousness”

  1. There clearly are many as-yet-unanswered questions regarding a comprehensive understanding of consciousness and how each of the many components of our cognitive, psychological, and spiritual nature contribute to the totality of our humanity. In reviewing your blog, it is immediately apparent that you are uniquely positioned to help us unravel some of these conundrums, and although there seems to be a fair amount of disconnect in the debate between the materialists and those who have a “spiritual interest in matters of the soul and consciousness,” your approach feels much more integrative and balanced in your consideration of the subject.

    It seems clear to me that no single approach or narrow focus on either side of the question will ultimately benefit our understanding as well as giving serious consideration to the full range of possibility.

    Still, there are enormously compelling subjective aspects to the experience of consciousness that seem to defy empirical explanations that almost exclusively emphasize the purely objective view. My own interests include both the fascinating and expansive field of neuroscience, as well as the more enigmatic spiritual or metaphysical aspects of contemplation, in spite of the resistance to anything even remotely “unscientific.”

    Thanks for your consideration of my thoughts and I hope to share more with you as time permits…..John H.

  2. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m inspired! Very useful information particularly the remaining section 🙂 I take care of such info much. I used to be looking for this certain information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

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